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Network pulls ‘too Catholic’ show

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

The country’s largest Spanish-language television network has pulled the only U.S.-made religious program for Hispanic Catholics from its broadcast lineup -- in part, producers charge, because it was “too Catholic.”

Though officials at Univisión refused to comment, the show’s producers also charge that their commitment to social justice issues had little support at the network.

The Univisión network, based in Miami, pulled the show from its lineup in late November and shifted it to its cable wing, Galavisión. In a letter, the network said the move will give the show access to “Hispanic viewers across the entire country.”

The program, called “Nuestra Familia,” features documentaries probing “life issues in light of the gospel,” according to producer Cecilia González. Los Angeles-based González has contributed segments on socially oriented topics like teen pregnancy, religious themes such as life and worship in multi-ethnic parishes, and Hispanic cultural celebrations like the Day of the Dead.

According to Roberto Gutiérrez, who runs the company that has produced the show since it first aired in 1983, the change is a “tremendous loss” because it will restrict its audience to cable subscribers only. Before the change, Gutiérrez said, the show was available on multiple over-the-air channels as well as large cable systems.

Gutiérrez said that Univisión officials told him they made the decision in part because they felt the program was too identifiably Catholic.

“Because ‘Nuestra Familia’ features a Catholic priest, the network ties it to one faith group,” Gutiérrez said. Given the increasing religious diversity of the Hispanic population in the United States, he suggested, the network felt the program was too narrow in terms of the audience it draws.

González said she also perceived a push to “survive within the television world” behind Univisión’s decision. Network officials, she said, do not believe that social critique is the way to attract new viewers.

“Poor and disenfranchised Latinos are no one’s concern, not the dominant society’s and not that of Latinos who are in power,” González said. “It is the sad truth.”

Network officials declined requests for comment.

“Nuestra Familia” generally draws high marks from industry observers. Ed Murray, president and CEO of the National Interfaith Cable Coalition, praised the show for its “intimate connection with what Latino family life is all about.”

As the most watched Spanish-language network in the United States, Univisión “is without peer in its ability to reach Hispanic homes,” said González. Formerly senior producer at Univisión’s KMEX station in Los Angeles, González noted the network’s special influence on the huge Hispanic market in Southern California.

Besides the broadcast network, Univisión owns 18 television stations, with 11 in the biggest 15 Hispanic markets.

The show’s producer was not notified of Univisión’s decision until the day after the network had pulled the show, he said. Producers did not have the chance to warn program staff receiving viewer calls about the show’s move, which Gutiérrez said Univisión announced on the air during the last program Nov. 28.

A Nov. 23 letter from Univisión’s programming director Otto M. Padrón said that the network is “confident that this change will help ‘Nuestra Familia’ grow its audience numbers and secure a more stable affiliate base.”

Gutiérrez said that the decision included not only Padrón, but Univisión’s president of entertainment Mario Rodríguez and chief operating officer Henry Cisneros, mayor of San Antonio from 1981-‘89 and secretary of HUD under the Clinton administration from 1993-‘96.

Neither Rodríguez nor Cisneros was available for questions.

Series contributor González expressed concern over the venue shift because of the faithful viewing habits of U.S. Hispanics, whom she described as “more brand-loyal than any other consumer group.” She explained that “a TV program comes to be identified very closely with its network” because “viewers know where to find it.”

Without costly promotion of the change, which neither the program nor the network can provide, González said, “switching carriers is deadly.”

While 65 to 75 percent of the program’s funding is from viewer donations, Gutiérrez said that Catholic Communication Campaign of the United Catholic Conference had contributed toward the program every year since 1981.

Ellen McLoskey, director of productions for Catholic Communication Campaign, praised “Nuestra Familia” as a “fine program,” adding that “the bishops want to reach the Hispanic community.”

The weekly show, Gutiérrez said, provided hope to its viewers, many of whom are immigrants. Dealing with core facets of the immigrant experience, he said, the program has provided spiritual guidance to people on the margins “looking for a way to better their life.”

An English-language version of “Nuestra Familia,” called “Our Family,” airs on the Odyssey Television Network Mondays at 10 a.m. EST and Thursdays at 3 a.m. EST.

National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 1999